Long Runners: No 8: Emmerdale

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The Independent Culture
Age: 21. First broadcast on 16 October 1972, Emmerdale is British TV's second-longest-running drama serial (after Coronation Street).

Formula: Everyday stories of Yorkshire hill-farming folk. The original structure of powerful matriarch Annie (played since the beginning by the formidable Sheila Mercier, who is Brian Rix's sister in real life) and brotherly rivals Joe and Jack Sugden was clearly the model for the Ewings of Dallas.

Frequency: Two episodes a week, 52 weeks a year. Emmerdale's prime-time slot - on Tuesdays and Thursdays at seven - was hard won. The Farm started as a lunchtime treat and slowly rose through the schedules: it didn't win a synchronised evening slot across the network until 1988. It has just been awarded an overdue lunchtime repeat, allowing it to fight the ratings war on equal terms with the market leaders.

Ratings: The most recent Barb figures put them at an impressive 13 1/2 million.

Fatal attraction: For many years British TV's best-kept secret, the Farm has long furnished the communal thrill of the big-time soaps with none of the media overkill that accompanies enjoyment of EastEnders or Coronation Street. Aficionados can indulge in debates on Seth Armstrong's fashion sense or the betrayal of Archie Brooks's anarchist principles, safe in the knowledge that those who do not watch it will not have the first idea of what they are talking about.

Little-known facts: Claire King, who plays svelte secretary turned horse- breeder Kim Tate, once stepped out with hirsute rock'n'roller Zodiac Mindwarp. Richard Thorp, creator of immortal trencherman turned landlord Alan 'Tubby' Turner, likes nothing better in his spare time than a spin on his Harley-Davidson motorbike.

Celebrity cameos: The late great Max Wall was once Arthur Braithwaite, and Joanne Whalley (none of that Whalley-Kilmer business in those days) lit up the screen as 'Young Angela' in the late Seventies. Stars of other soaps who cut their teeth on Emmerdale include EastEnders' Pam St Clement and Ross Kemp, and Beverley Callard, aka Coronation Street's Liz McDonald.

State of play: In the past two years a chill wind of change has swept the Dales. Tony Hatch's Vaughan Williams-style theme tune has been rewritten in the style of Brookside, the programme has dropped the 'Farm' part of its name and the title sequence has forsaken sunsets and sheep-dips for mountain bikes and paragliding. Hordes of younger characters have swarmed into Beckindale to head off the teatime threat from the Antipodes. Their antics have been trailed with a series of lurid posters - one of the most memorable featured two young lovers embracing in a single leotard beneath the legend 'Her Mother Killed Her Last Boyfriend'. The current producer, former EastEnders script editor Morag Bain, has also overseen a dramatic hardening of storylines: child-abuse and alcoholism are just two of the social issues covered recently. Seth is now suffering from prostate problems, and coltish vet Zoe Tate, having bedded every eligible man in Yorkshire, is now coming to terms with her lesbianism.

What will they think of next? The recent appointment of Brookside's Phil Redmond as 'story consultant' is unlikely to herald a return to the good old days of poaching and point-to-points. Tabloid tittle-tattle suggests a 'Lockerbie-style air disaster' planned for the turn of the year. Emmerdale's publicity office confirms: 'It's true to say that we will soon feature a storyline showing the effects of a major tragedy on a small community.'

Isn't that a bit sick? Executive producer and Yorkshire TV head of drama Keith Richardson says: 'I beg people to watch it. It will be handled with the same tact and discretion Emmerdale brings to all serious issues.'

That's all right, then: So long as Elizabeth Pollard doesn't get out alive.

The bottom line - is it any good? Is the Pope Italian? (i e Yes, usually.) Good acting and a resilient cast have carried Emmerdale through one of the most drastic image revamps in TV history. But the arrival of improbably named Cockney livewire Vic Windsor (London advertising: 'At last, a geezer in Emmerdale what talks proper') has shaken the show's fan base to its foundations. The lack of Cockney livewires has always been one of its most appealing features.

(Photograph omitted)

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